by Don L. F. Nilsen and
Alleen Pace Nilsen
WARNING ABOUT AFRICAN-AMERICAN HUMOR, TABOOS, AND CENSORSHIP
In selecting examples of African-American humor we have tried to be edgy,
but not offensive, but consider the following:
CENSORSHIP FROM THE RIGHT: Blasphemy, Obscenity, Profanity, Swear
Words, Vulgarity, Mention of Body Parts, and Body Functions
CENSORSHIP FROM THE LEFT (POLITICAL CORRECTNESS): Age,
Disabilities, Gender, Ethnicity, Belief System, and all other marginalizations.
Ethnic humor tends to be in the vernacular. It is colloquial, and
ungrammatical and unpretentious, but it is also often “vulgar” because it is in
the language of the common people (compare “Vulgar Latin”).
We’ve tried not to use offensive examples, and we hope we have succeeded,
but remember that what is not offensive to one person might be very
offensive to another person. We apologize in advance if any of our examples
Use Vs. Mention
An Important Linguistic Concept
Because most ethnic humor is colloquial or vernacular humor, it contains
many vulgarities and obscenities.
These vulgarities and obscenities become part of the “rhythm” of the
Therefore many ethnic comedians have difficulty being funny without
these vulgarities and obscenities. Furthermore, they provide some of the
edginess to the humor.
In studying ethnic humor, a linguist sometimes needs to mention or cite
these obscenities and vulgarities in order to discuss the humor. But in
doing so, the linguist is not using the obscenities and vulgarities.
Thus there is a distinction between use and mention.
The World-Wide Influence of
African American Humor
• Humor scholars have always acknowledged the
contributions and effects of Jewish humor on the
subjects and the roles of American humor.
• It is appropriate to also acknowledge the contributions of
African Americans to the overall humor of the United
States—and to the world—especially if we consider the
elements of playfulness and humor in hip-hop.
• Within living memory, the “place” of AA humor has
undergone more change than any other genre. Today,
the mainstream laughs with Blacks, while a couple of
generations ago, the custom was to laugh at blacks.
Until well after WW II . . .
• Traveling minstrel shows were one of the few theater events available
in rural areas.
• In small town America, amateur actors loved to put on black-face and
costumes and perform their own minstrel shows.
• Popular children’s books included the 1889 Story of Little Black
Sambo by British author Helen Bannerman and the 1907 Epaminondas
and His Auntie by Sara Cone Bryant.
• It was the exaggerated drawings, as much as the stories, that offended
African Americans and made black children feel embarrassed or
ashamed when teachers read the books to mixed school groups.
Features of AA Humor That Can be
Traced to West Africa
• Extensive Word Play
• An Abundance of Street Language
• Verbal Put-Downs
• Mocking of Enemy’s Relatives
• Chanting of Ridicule Verses
• Using the Whole Body (including bent-knees)
for dancing and communicating feelings
• Admiring Trickster Figures
• Verbal Quickness and Wit
New Spellings of Disk Jockey
•Deejay Djing Djin DJ’n
Names of Groups or Individuals
•DJ Kool Herc DJ AJ
•Blue Jays DJ Clark Kent
•DJ Craze DJ Evil Dee
•DJ Kay Gee DJ Jazzy Jay
•DJ Timmy Juicy J
New Spellings of Master of
•Femcee (for a woman)
Run DMC was named to honor
the speed with which he ran
Can you give examples?
• Names that build on the idea of Cool.
• Names that include Rock or Roc.
• Names spelled “phonetically.”
• Names spelled in all caps.
• Numbers included in names.
• Names that are clipped.
• The doubling of letters.
Things to Consider Relating
to African-American Humor
• Can you see connections between hip hop spelling and the more
recent text messaging?
• How about the creative names that parents are now giving their
• In what ways can unusual spelling be a statement of independence
and/or ethnic pride?
• Is there a generational difference in the appreciation of ethnic-related
humor? Why might this be?
• Do you always expect African American comics to make jokes about
racial differences as opposed to other subjects? Can you give some
Amos ’n Andy
• During the 1930s the
Amos and Andy radio
show starred white
actors doing blackface
comedy. It was the
most popular of all
• When the show moved
to TV in 1951, African
Americans were hired
• In the 1950s as everyone became more aware
of racism, leading up to the desegregation of
schools, Amos and Andy became so
controversial that the producers put together
a politically correct version. It lost its zing,
and was cancelled.
• By today’s standards, the show was both
racist and stereotyped.
• However, Joe Franklin said that the Blacks on
the show may have “prepared the ground for
the acceptance of real blacks in the American
Two Comedy Pioneers
Pigmeat Markham 1904-81
•Markham was a blackface
performer and when
audiences and critics
demanded that burnt-cork
performances end, they
were astonished to find that
he was actually darker than
the makeup he had used.
•In his most famous skit, he
played the world’s funkiest
judge. The audience would
say, “Here come da Judge,” a
line later used by both Flip
Wilson and Sammy Davis Jr.
Moms Mabley 1897-1975
•Mabley would come on stage
in oversized clodhoppers, a
raggedy dress, and an oddball
hat. She played the role of a
•She was nearly 70 when she
first played for a white
audience at the Playboy Club in
•She later made guest
appearances with Bill Cosby,
Flip Wilson, and the Smothers
Hip Hop As a Kind of Humor
• Hip Hop grew out of the Civil
Rights Movement of the
1960s and ‘70s.
• It rejects the status quo and
emphasizes the individual.
• Besides music and rap, it
includes break dancing,
tagging, graph writing, and
• It is not restricted to
African Americans, and
is in fact, now global.
• A major feature is the
especially in spelling
Tricksters are also important
in African-American Culture
Gretchen Martin at the
University of Virginia’s
College at Wise has a
recent book about
The book was published
by the University Press of
Mississippi in December
The Range of African-
Some of the best
humor in today’s
comes to us from
slides will give
you a sense of
the range of this
Wayne Brady: “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”:
Louis C. K.’s Take on
Cedric the Entertainer
Cedric the Entertainer:
Redd Foxx: Another Pioneer
• In a precursor to the
creative spelling in Hip
Hop, Foxx chose to spell
his name with two d’s and
two x’s because he didn’t
want to be either a color
or an animal.
• A recent quote: “Health
nuts are going to feel
stupid someday, lying in
hospitals dying of
Redd Fox and Flip Wilson:
Donald Glover: “Home Depot”:
Whoopi Goldberg: The First Black
• In the 1990s, Whoopi
Goldberg’s talent for ad lib
and for making a stage
sparkle with power was
show- cased in her role as
host of the Academy Awards.
• She was born Caryn Johnson
and raised in a public housing
project in Manhattan by a
• She made her performing
debut at age eight with the
Helena Rubinstein Children’s
Theatre at the Hudson Guild.
Dick Gregory: A Sample Quote
“America is the only
country in the world
where a man can grow
up in a ghetto, go to
really bad schools, be
forced to ride in the
back of the bus, and
then get paid $5,000 a
week to tell people
David Alan Grier
David Alan Grier:
Terry Gross’s Take on
Bambi Haggins is an Associate Professor of Film and
Media Studies at Arizona State University.
She was a writer for Why We Laugh: Funny Women,
and a historical consultant for HBO’s Whoopi Goldberg
Presents Moms Mabley.
She is currently researching the field of “Black
Comedy in the Age of Obama.”
Tracy Morgan: “30 Rock” on “The View”:
Eddie Murphy: “Saturday Night Live” “Buckwheat”:
Trevor Noah and “The Daily Show”:
Conan O’Brien’s Take on
Tyler Perry: “Madea”:
Chris Rock: A Sample Quote
“Barack, man. He doesn’t
let his blackness sneak up
on you. Like if his name was
Bob Jones or something like
that, it might take you two or
three weeks to figure out
he’s black. But when you
hear ‘Barack Obama,’ you
picture a brother with a
spear, just standing over a
dead lion. You picture the
base player from the
Chris Rock: “Saturday Night Live” Monologue:
Nipsy Russell Roasts Don Rickles:
• When was the last time you seen a Black embezzler—or a
Black man getting busted for juggling the bankbooks? I
mean, what’s the use of having a Black brother on the
Supreme Court if none of us can commit a crime classy
enough to get it tried there?
• Jimmy Walker: “Dy-no-mite!!!”:
Katt Williams and Seth Meyers on “Saturday Night Live”:
Flip Wilson as “Geraldine” with Tim Conway and Burt Reynolds: